Strategy

Powering the energy transition

Oberon Fuels’s CFO looks to secure funding in the exciting and turbulent green energy industry.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

Green energy is having a moment right now. Worldwide, $1.7 trillion was invested in renewable energy in 2023, or $1.7 for every $1 invested in fossil fuels, the International Energy Agency estimates.

“The tandem push of federal investments flowing into clean energy and pull of decarbonization demand from public and private entities have never been stronger,” Deloitte wrote in its 2024 renewable energy outlook report.

But challenges remain, especially in the more nascent area of renewable fuels. The infrastructure for vehicles that run on green hydrogen, for instance, is still in its infancy. Other alternative fuels, such as green methanol, are in even earlier stages of development. And uncertainty around guidance for renewable fuel tax credits has left investors in limbo: According to Deloitte, $50+ billion of investments in clean hydrogen were announced in 2023, but less than $1 billion were actually committed.

For green energy startups like Oberon Fuels, securing capital in such an environment isn’t an easy task. These companies need to convince investors that their technology is sound, that a market will one day exist for it, and that they’re prepared to weather changes like political shifts that could affect ESG legislation.

But Oberon’s new CFO, Ann Anthony, is up to the task.

The company: Oberon Fuels was founded in 2010. It operates the only commercially viable plant in the US that converts biogas and organic waste (think wood pulp, food waste, and yes, manure) to dimethyl ether, or DME. DME can be used as a fuel or blended with other fuels, like propane, to reduce their carbon footprint. Suburban Propane and other customers are already buying DME from Oberon, Anthony said.

But the company has other projects in the works, including converting DME to green methanol, a “drop-in fuel” used in container ships, Anthony said, and transporting it to other locations to be converted to hydrogen. DME, which is nontoxic (it’s used as a propellant in products like perfumes and air fresheners), is easier and cheaper to transport using existing infrastructure than hydrogen, Anthony said.

Bringing in the green: Anthony joined Oberon as CFO in November 2023. Previously, she was CFO at renewable gas company OPAL Fuels, which she helped go public in 2022, and CFO at battery storage startup Key Capture Energy. “My superpower, if you will, is I know how to raise capital.” Anthony said. She estimates she’s helped the companies she’s worked for bring in between $8 billion and $9 billion.

Oberon’s uniqueness, Anthony believes, makes it appealing to potential investors. As she points out, “we’re the only ones” doing biomass-to-DME at commercial scale in North America. The flexibility inherent in the DME molecule is another selling point. “There’s optionality in our business in terms of what the ultimate molecules can do,” she said. “And as you can appreciate, in the energy transition, there’s a lot of fluidity as regulation develops, as technology develops” so having “the ability to make multiple products is really attractive,” she said.

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The people side of capital: But raising capital requires more than just a strong business proposition, Anthony said. You’ve also got to have the right human factors.

“I’ve always been a proponent of maintaining relationships across the spectrum” instead of only working with one bank or one person, she said. That way, if someone retires or leaves, you have other options.

Your relationships with the rest of your leadership team are also crucial, especially at a startup. If it’s a small team, “you’re going to need each one of those people to participate in some way in your capital raise,” she said. Oberon’s leadership team, for instance, includes a chief technology officer and a VP of engineering who need to be able to answer investors’ questions about its technology.

Dealing with volatility: The transition to green energy is complex, and progress may come in fits and starts. “I don’t think that any one technology is going to be the fix,” Anthony said. “I also do think it’s going to take a lot longer to get off of fossil than anybody expects.”

She points out, for example, that many people still use legacy technologies like gas stoves, so natural gas infrastructure will need to remain in place for quite a while. And new factors like the AI boom have entered the mix. “There is not enough renewable energy to power all” of the new data centers generative AI requires, she observed.

To cope with such uncertainty, she and her team frequently conduct scenario planning. She relies on partners like accountants, attorneys, and consultants to help her work through various scenarios, such as the potential impact of different interest rates, she said.

And working for a small startup comes with challenges of its own.

“You have to be comfortable brainstorming and trying to do more with less,” she said. “You don’t have the luxury of throwing people” at a problem “like you might in a large company…every person that you’re thinking about hiring has to make an immediate impact,” she added.

Still, Anthony seems to enjoy her role as linchpin. As she observes, “every decision that gets made ultimately comes home to roost in the financials.”

News built for finance pros

CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.